The 10 Best TV Shows About College, From 'Sex Lives' To 'Greek'
From HBO Max's playfully raunchy 'The Sex Lives of College Girls' to the proudly meta world of 'Community.'
Given how many of us cite our college years as some of our most formative (for better or for worse), it’s quite surprising that more TV shows about college life don’t exist. The adolescent ups and downs of high school life have been well-documented on the small screen but, save for those programs that follow their underage characters into the next chapter of their lives, very few series actually seem interested in exploring that period of life when we are finally free from our parents and allowed the space to mature away from their watchful eyes.
And what a shame that is! After all, so much happens during this period. It’s when we make our biggest mistakes, but also achieve some of our biggest goals. It’s when most of us really begin dating — and not that puppy-love dating we do in high school; the real dating, where you and your partner are possibly envisioning an entire lifetime together. It’s also the perfect excuse to bounce a lot of different perspectives off one another. College is famously known as a place where many different people, of many different backgrounds, converge — where they’re urged to exchange ideas about the world, especially with those who might not agree. It’s no surprise that shows about college often boast some of the most diverse casts on TV. Even a small-town conservative is bound to bump heads with a liberal city-slicker on a university campus.
Which is why NYLON is recommending ten incredible shows about college to stream right now. From the raunchy shenanigans of The Sex Lives of College Girls to the savvy satire of Dear White People, these ten series depicted college as a wondrous center of limitless self-discovery.
A Different World on HBO Max
When it became clear that, like “Ignition (Remix)” and Annie Hall, we would also have to give up reruns of The Cosby Show thanks to its creator’s history of sexual assault, I found comfort in knowing that I would always have A Different World. A spinoff to the long-running Black cultural juggernaut, the series, in many respects, was an improvement on its predecessor. While The Cosby Show has been rightfully criticized for espousing respectability politics, A Different World succeeded as the former’s edgier sister. Following Cosby daughter Denise Huxtable and her adventures at the fictional HBCU Hillman College, this late-80s/early-90s NBC hit benefitted from showing a multitude of Black perspectives — from the self-interested to the more socially-minded and politically-inclined. We can thank this series for introducing us to memorable characters like Kadeem Hardison’s enviably cool Dwayne Wayne and Jasmine Guy’s primped and pampered spoiled brat Whitley Gilbert. But the show will always be best remembered for its open-minded willingness to tackle thorny subjects with sensitivity — a feature that was best represented in the two-part sixth season opener, “Honeymoon in L.A.,” which confronted the Rodney King riots at a time no other show would dare.
Community on Hulu
Years before he’d win his first (and second) Emmy for playing Earn Marks on his game-changing FX hit Atlanta, Donald Glover was stealing scenes as a much different character on NBC’s Community. Following seven Greendale Community College students, united by their participation in a makeshift Spanish study group, the comedy frequently poked fun (lovingly, of course) at TV and film tropes, quickly establishing itself as one of our era’s most proudly meta comedies. An exemplar of the “joke-per-minute” school of rapidfire sitcoms, the series was consistently hilarious, while its willingness to go completely off-the-rails (as it memorably does in the third season highlight, “Remedial Chaos Theory,” where a simple game of dice-rolling inadvertently sets off a wave of alternate timelines, including the meme-making “The Darkest Timeline”) elevated this Dan Harmon gem above its NBC contemporaries.
Dear White People on Netflix
Earlier this year, Dear White People premiered its fourth and final season, a somewhat uneven, but admirably ambitious 80s-tinged musical about, amongst other things: legacies, fighting against prejudice, and the struggle to make great art in compromised situations. This final outing was a fitting sendoff for a series that had always been groundbreaking. An adaptation of Justin Simien’s Sundance and Spirit Award-winning 2014 feature of the same name, Dear White People’s unflinching depiction of Black students forced to navigate life at a prestigious, primarily-white university offered viewers a previously unseen perspective on the quietly racist culture found at many elite educational institutions. Across the show’s forty episodes, Simen and his team introduced viewers to a bevy of fascinatingly complex Black characters (radical podcast host Samantha White, who feels ambivalent about her relationship with a white man; aspiring writer Lionel Higgins, who struggles with his queerness until he learns to embrace it), all while finding a sweet spot between hilarious satire and heartbreaking tragedy.
Greek on Hulu
Everybody has that one show that made them excited about college years before they’d ever get the chance to apply. For me, that was Greek, the ABC Family drama about fraternity and sorority life on the fictional campus of Cyprus-Rhodes University. Running for four seasons from 2007 to 2011, the series’ focus on Greek life proved perfect: after all, what is more college than environments exclusively known for outrageous partying and plentiful sex? But as horny as it was (and it was), Greek was more than ABC Family’s take on College Kids Gone Wild. The series was equally interested in telling compelling stories about the ever-changing nature of relationships — both platonic and romantic — on college campuses: the contentious but ultimately caring sibling rivalry between glamorous sorority girl Casey Cartwright and her desperate but brainy brother, Rusty Cartwright, was reliably heartwarming, while the coming-out story of Calvin Owens, an otherwise well-adjusted Black hockey player, resonated with me at a time when LGBTQ+ narratives (particularly Black LGBTQ+ narratives) were still a rarity.
grown-ish on Hulu
There was a time when black-ish felt like the smartest family sitcom on network TV. (That time would be ~2014-2018, during the show’s first four seasons.) The Kenya Barris comedy about an upper-middle-class Black family living on the outskirts of Los Angeles was an often astute observer of the quiet racial dynamics that exist in supposedly liberal spaces. So naturally, its successor, grown-ish, which follows eldest Johnson child Zoey (Yara Shahidi) as she leaves home to attend college, continues this trend. With a hilarious cast that includes American Crime’s handsome Trevor Jackson as one of Zoey’s love interests, fashion influencer Luka Sabbat as a different love interest, and reliable scene-stealer/Barbershop MVP Deon Cole as their hilariously unprofessional professor, the Freeform comedy takes full advantage of its new setting to tell a whole host of new stories about millennial life; grown-ish tackles issues of religion, politics, queerness, and class conflict with the same level of precision its predecessor dealt with discussions of racial identity. If nothing else, this underrated sitcom is worth a visit just to see our favorite sisters Chloe and Halle Bailey in all their pre-Ungodly Hour glory.
How to Get Away with Murder on Netflix
Alright, alright. I know. Technically, How to Get Away With Murder is about law school — not exactly the type of “college” experience you’d expect to see represented on this list. But given this edge-of-your-seat thriller’s focus on young adults who are arguably even more beleaguered with schoolwork than your typical undergrad (thanks to their regular law school assignments and their additional work as interns at their law professor’s firm), I’d argue that its inclusion is still fair. In many ways, How to Get Away with Murder was the last of a dying breed — I can’t remember the last time I’ve followed a network drama so closely, refusing to abandon it even when times got tough. (I watched all the way through to the bitter end.) But with an Emmy-winning Viola Davis performance at the center and plenty to say about the moral ambiguity of our unjust legal system, this Shonda Rhimes drama sank its claws into me and refused to let go. That’s a compliment.
The Parkers on Netflix
Last summer, Netflix announced the impending arrival of several Black sitcoms from the 90s and early aughts. Immediately, it became clear that people were excited to revisit titles like the Brandy-starring Moesha and the Tracee Ellis Ross vehicle Girlfriends. But in my opinion, equal enthusiasm should’ve been reserved for The Parkers, the hilarious UPN sitcom starring Precious Oscar winner Mo’Nique and Moesha veteran Countess Vaughn, as a mother-daughter duo who end up attending the same community college. Like Community, The Parkers does a great job of turning the specificities of junior college life into side-splitting jokes — sparsely-attended activities fairs, students reciting bad poetry in class — but the series works best when indulging the expected hijinks of an overbearing mother entwining herself in her daughter’s social life. Much like Moesha, the beloved series it spins off from, The Parkers is a terrific look at Black family dynamics.
Scream Queens on Hulu
The less said about the ill-fated second outing for this underrated Ryan Murphy gem, the better. But with that out the way, feel free to praise the superb first season — a perfectly camp slasher that found Murphy at his unhinged Murphyest, somehow, in the best way possible. Centered around the elitist Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at Wallace University (where four different girls are named “Chanel” and ordered in terms of perceived importance), Scream Queens was a delightfully bloody horror in the vein of Scream and Sleepover Camp. (Here, the killer disguises themselves as a literal Red Devil.) The cast is a wet-dream, with Murphy regulars like Emma Roberts and Billie Lourd joining the likes of Niecy Nash (who will next be seen in Murphy’s Jeffrey Dahmer series, Monster), Keke Palmer, and a very shirtless, very gay Nick Jonas. But Scream Queens endures thanks to its clever satire, which spoofed the over-the-top lifestyles of wealthy sororities within an inch of their fad-dieted lives. I mean, seriously: try to keep a straight face while Emma Roberts recites the scathing email she sent to her sorority charges. In my decades of TV-watching, I have never seen a better reutilization of a popular internet meme.
The Sex Lives of College Girls on HBO Max
After witnessing the genius-in-a-bottle brilliance of Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, it wasn’t too big of a surprise to learn that the former Office actress had a pretty good grasp on “the youth.” With The Sex Lives of College Girls, The Mindy Project star has taken the reasonable next step — graduating from high school to college. Following four extremely different freshmen who all end up sharing a dorm suite, the HBO Max series is a funny ensemble comedy about finding your tribe in a new place. Hilariously enough, the show with “sex lives” in its title isn’t as salacious as you might guess. Not that these “college girls” aren’t expectedly horny — they are — but Sex Lives sees them as more than sex-crazed 18-year-olds. Whether it’s the bitchy WASP elitism of closeted New Yorker Leighton (Mean Girls: The Musical’s Renee Rapp) or the all-too-relatable misogyny experienced by aspiring comedian Bela (Amrit Kaur) while trying to gain the respect of her school’s prestigious humor magazine, this witty series (which will thankfully return for a second season next year) knows college is as much about personal growth as it is about sexual exploration. (But, yes, sexual exploration is still a big part of it.)
Undeclared on Youtube
This criminally underrated gem from the mind of Judd Apatow was the funnyman’s second stab at a network series after his cult classic Freaks & Geeks was unceremoniously canceled in its first season. (Coincidentally enough, Undeclared soon met the same fate — seriously, what was it with networks and prematurely canceling quality Apatow shows?) Following six freshmen — each, as the title suggests, an “Undeclared” major — this wry sitcom featured unlikely friendships, failed attempts at sex, bummy high school boyfriends that refuse to let you move on with your life, and of course, struggles with coursework. But the best part? All seventeen glorious episodes are available to binge for free on YouTube, a fact Apatow enthusiastically shared with his followers at the beginning of the pandemic. He mentions that “lots of familiar friends pop up” in the series, and he’s absolutely right: Undeclared features appearances by Amy Poehler, Charlie Hunnam, Kevin Hart, and several familiar faces from Freaks and Geeks, including Busy Phillips, Seth Rogen, and Jason Segel.